When you’ve been immersed in systems and critical thinking for many years, it’s easy to forget that it’s still not the ‘normal’ way to do business. It’s not normal to consider the potential for unforeseen consequences on your actions. It’s not even normal to realise that the problems you are solving today were someone’s solution yesterday who also didn’t think about the system they were connected to or having an impact on.

I am a something of a systems change geek and insanely addicted to spotting patterns in everything. So it excites me to inspire others to see the massive potential in the world to have a positive impact on all
the incredible challenges we humans face — if you can think in systems.

As a child I was fascinated by the moon landings. I was completely struck by the images of our beautiful planet from outer space. I had some kind of inbuilt understanding that everywhere was home. Just like an American astronaut who has had the privilege of being up in space and looking down on this beautiful blue dot, who comes back to earth in a Russian spacecraft and lands in Turkmenistan and thinks — I’m home — I’ve always understood that there’s no ‘away’. That sending British plastic rubbish to China is just sending British plastic rubbish to China. It’s still here, its still at home. And thankfully they don’t let us do that anymore — we now have to deal with our own waste!

We humans love to solve problems. But the problem with solving problems is that you are likely to create fresh problems for future generations if you don’t think systemically and with the support of scenario planning. This is an oldie but one of my favourite systems thinking stories — and it (allegedly) really happened.

How do we start to become conscious of systems?

Systems are all around us. We just have to start to see them. There are three major systems at play in our world. They are human social system: us, and all the very tangible systems we have created for social cohesion such as the nation state, the education system, the political system, the legal system, the judiciary. Even religions are systems of belief which have systemic supporting structures.

Then we have in my opinion the most beautiful system of all whose intelligence has been refined and honed over 3.8 billion years; our ecological system. Our entire planet is one enormous ecological and interconnected life support system. It includes smaller independent ecological systems such as rainforests, oceans, and even the mycelial network which stretches
underground supporting trees and plants with water and nutrients as and when they need it. 

The human body itself is a marvel of independent but interconnected systems. The respiratory system. The nervous system. The digestive system. The circulatory system. The skeletal system. The muscular system. The endocrine system. The lymphatic system. The reproductive system. The endoacannabinoid system. We are whole yet we are a mass of interconnected systems.

Systems are everywhere. They’re not new. They’ve always been here.

The curse of problem solving

If we don’t want to end up asking future generations to metaphorically parachute cats into Borneo all the time, how can we begin to think differently? Let’s take commodities. When you start to look at the commodities industries, it’s easy to see how an inability to do even rudimentary scenario planning has caught up with us.

No-one thought, when they first looked at the potential to convert America’s rich central plains into a vast wheat producing landscape, of the impact of monocropping and subsequent intensive fertiliser on the fertility and density of the soil or the life of the Mississippi. Or of the potential to create dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

No-one thought, when they first spied the potential of the cocoa bean to create a luxury chocolate drink for European royalty, that moving this plant to West Africa where slave labour was plentiful in colonial times, might have consequences — for the people and the land. No one thought that ripping down virgin rainforest to grow the cocoa bean ever more intensively in smart marching rows might have far reaching impacts for biodiversity, soil, and even the cocoa bean itself — which actually prefers shady climes. No-one anticipated how accelerating productivity of the bean through fertiliser inputs to meet the exponentially growing demand for chocolate as the world got richer, would damage the soil in which they grew.

Nor did they join the dots to think what that would mean for the growth and subsequent impact of intensifying the dairy industry on the environment, or the impact of sugar on human health. The bar of chocolate we crave carries with it an awful lot of history: colonialism, deforestation, child labour, soil degradation, extractive economics, intensive dairy farming and negative impact on human health. Even if it gives you a ‘flake’ moment.

Today’s problems stem from yesterday’s solutions.

 Everything is interconnected. There is nothing that isn’t connected to something else. Once you start looking everything is dynamically connected. We have a dynamic relationship with trees. We breathe their oxygen every day. The rain that falls on the land is first lifted from the oceans as evaporation. The birds eat the fruits, spread the pollen, shed the seeds, from which saplings take root and grow into trees which shed leaves that create food for other animals and eventually soil, and the tree gives fruit once more.

Designing humble products to live within systems

 Even when we think about how we design products in the industrial world, it’s rare to find a company that considers the wider system in which their products operate and have impact.

 I particularly like the story of the humble British tea kettle which I first heard told by systems expert Leyla Ocoraglu. The kettle is an ubiquitous item in every British household. One with a couple of clear lines designed onto it; minimum and maximum fill. Except that for most kettles minimum fill is still 3–4 cups of water! Who ever fills their kettle with only enough water for one cup of tea — if they live alone of course? Over a lifetime, imagine how much energy that has wasted every time we boil too much water. What if we designed kettles with two chambers? One for a single cup and a second for larger volumes of water?

 

 

Our fridges are expanding — much like our waistlines — to accommodate even more food. Most of which we waste. And when they are empty, guess what? They use more energy than when they are full. Food waste is one of the biggest challenges in the food system. The UN tells us that half of the world’s produced food is wasted. It’s 1.3 billion tons of food per annum.

The similarly humble lettuce tends to moulder in our fridges and often gets thrown into the food waste system. If we’re efficient, it goes into our compost heap. More often than not, it goes into the waste bin still wrapped in plastic. Once it reaches landfill, it degrades unnaturally in an anaerobic site where it may contribute to the production of methane; a gas far more potent than Co2. It’s footprint even before it reaches your fridge is huge; water, energy, soil, human effort has gone into growing the humble lettuce. Because we have failed to design fridges that can lengthen its life span, it gets shoved in a useless drawer and pulled out only when too soggy to be eaten. Imagine if we designed fridges with vacuum drawers to actually keep lettuces crisp. Imagine if we designed fridges that shut down when empty and used less energy.

Industrial designers are now expending huge amounts of innovation effort to improve not only fridges, but to reduce the toxicity of elements in tumbledriers and lessen the toxic impact of bleaching agents on our determined desire for crispy white shirts. Companies are driven to reduce their environmental impact but they still only invest in such innovations if their is a customer demand behind the innovation or a competitive advantage at the end of the rainbow. They are solving problems. And yet they are not always looking at the even bigger picture.

 Why do we need white fabric? Why do we need chocolate? Why do we need tumble-driers? If we begin at this kind of question, the opportunity of systems thinking gives us moment for pause to consider what else might be possible within the wider system. Initially people can respond by considering these reductionist questions. In fact what we are doing by starting at this level is creating opportunities to look at possibilities we had never previously considered — however initially unfeasible they may seem.

When we recently held a discussion about the tumble drier in a client workshop, one of the things that naturally emerged is that the tumble drier is a time -saving device. Of course it is, it was designed to help modern people spend less time on hanging out washing to dry in the sun and to enable faster drying in winter or rain. We then talked about what we lost as human beings as designs like these enabled us to spend more time elsewhere. We lost conversations that happened over garden fences when it was a washing day. We lost opportunity for connection.

 

When we start to think about the loss of connection as a critical factor in human wellbeing, we can start to design differently. I recently had the opportunity to learn about Tipner West, an innovative new development piloted by Natascha Macintyre Hall at Portsmouth City Council. One of the key features she is designing into this new development is the opportunity for human connection.

By including kerb free living with central parking and deliveries for the community enabled by automated distribution, the development will engineer opportunities for people to pass each other by and interact personally rather than making a dash from door to car.

Chocolate companies are putting a lot of effort into mapping deforested regions in Africa using drone technology. They’re trying to work with farming cooperatives they have helped to set up, to partner with governments to find ways to finance reforesting, and replanting elderly and unproductive cocoa plantations. But what if collectively all the cocoa producing nations and corporations came together and agreed to reduce their chocolate output for 20 years whilst they were funded to reforest faster? What if fabric manufacturers collectively agreed to cease production of any bleached fabric for 20 years — and were rewarded for doing so?

Perhaps our solutions have to go harder and deeper than ever before. Perhaps we have to imagine that we will be prepared to temporarily step away from production of the most negatively impactful products we humans use or crave for the sake of future generations. Perhaps we have to come together to find ways to pay corporations who are best placed to participate in rebalancing our damaged ecosystems, to do that — if they are prepared to reduce production and therefore consumption across the board — whilst ensuring that ‘markets’ do not allow any new producers to spring up in their wake.

Thinking in systems allied to scenario planning is a cornerstone to ensuring we don’t leave yet more wicked problems for future generations to solve. It’s not a guarantee, but it is a window of opportunity to be seized.